The handbag as fashion accessory is rarely considered high art. True, the attention to form and color that guide an artist’s hand find equal importance in fashion design, but the two paths tend to be quite different. In Judith Leiber’s case however, they are hardly two different paths at all. Her handbags successfully bridged the worlds of fashion and art and have found a home in the permanent design collections of leading museums around the world. This is in addition to their regular appearances on runways, the arms of first ladies and ultimately being immortalized in Sex and The City.
Over 500 of these fashionable objets d’art comprise the current exhibit at the Leiber Collection in East Hampton during Judith Leiber—An American Journey: From Artisan To Fashion Icon. The museum was specially designed to house Judith’s handbags, her husband Gerson’s paintings and drawings and their collection of classical Chinese art.
The exhibit will include two floors of her signature handbags, works that transcend fashion like one piece that presents a golden horse fashioned into a purse. Despite being covered in crystals, the musculature of the animal still shows in detail. The accessories pay homage to the greats, with one collection drawing heavy influence from famous painters like Braque, Sonia Delaunay and Mondrian.
One of Judith’s favorite works is a pouch-shaped Chatelaine minaudière from 1967. “It was the first bag I made in metal. It was full of spots, so I covered it in rhinestones,” she said. In addition, the collection contains silent film star Claudette Colbert’s purse fashioned with rows of rhinestones bearing her name; handbags made from ribbons; petit point; and Japanese obis and crystal-covered bags in the shape of polar bears and penguins. “I designed all the patterns,” she said. “Some of them are amusing.” They are also spectacular.
Judith arrived in New York shortly after WWII and found work in the handbag industry, a trade she mastered in Budapest. She believed she was overqualified for her then-position and at a friend’s urging, approached the head of the union. “He said, ‘I’ll send you to [fashion designer] Nettie Rosenstein, but you’re not going to make it.’ So I said, ‘Never mind, you just send me up there,’” she recalled. “I worked there for 12 years.” Since then, she has broken every glass ceiling she’s come up against, climbing to the highest levels in the fashion industry and earning a Coty award and a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Her life has been spent in the service of style, informing a brand and elevating the simple handbag to work of art. The show on view now is a careful curation of it all and the culmination of a life.
FYI: The Leiber Collection at 446 Old Stone Highway in Springs is free and open by appointment through the month of September. Call (631) 329-3288 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to see the collection.